America’s leaky septic systems a big problem

septic tank 1

Photo: South Carolina DHEC

As many as 1 in 5 Americans rely on a septic system to treat their wastewater, yet as our population grows, these systems are having unintended consequences that are endangering human and environmental health. In many places like Alabama Black Belt’s Lowndes County, septic systems can cost upwards of $30,000 and thus many low-income residents cannot afford proper sanitation and have been forced to pump their sewage into backyard pits which has caused the spread of diseases like hookworm (a disease largely eradicated in most developed countries). Additionally, as GOVERNING Magazine reported, septic systems rely on the natural filtration of the soil to eliminate the worst contaminants in the water. But most are designed to filter out only disease-causing bacteria and viruses and aren’t capable of removing nitrogen or phosphates, which can wreak havoc on aquatic environments by causing algal blooms and aquatic dead zones. 

Leaky septic tanks have also been linked to worsening algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee and the Great Lakes and groundwater contamination in California (just to name a few). While agricultural runoff gets most of the attention as the culprit of toxic algal blooms, many people may not be aware that their septic system is also playing a role. While the EPA has a list of precautions homeowners can take to ensure that their septic systems are working properly, maintenance or necessary upgrades to the systems are often unaffordable for many Americans.

Water and Wastes Digest explained, under optimal site conditions and regular maintenance, septic provides a safe, inexpensive and effective treatment of household wastewater for 10 to 40 years.  Fabricated from concrete, fiberglass or plastic, septic tanks are designed to trap solid waste for primary treatment. Liquids are discharged through perforated pipes to a drain field to “percolate” further biological breakdowns. By design, they leak. EPA estimates 40% of septic tanks do not function properly and have dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of raw, untreated wastewater and other toxic materials into the ground and, at times, the nation’s water supply. Leaking, malfunctioning and worn out septic tanks are responsible for most of the groundwater pollution in the U.S. today,” the agency said. In areas where septic system deterioration is rampant, studies conclude the systems were poorly designed, cheaply built or improperly maintained. Millions now are decades past their expiration dates.

Why This Matters: The unaffordability of proper septic systems in states like Alabama has been an issue that’s been covered since at least 2002, yet it didn’t get much national attention until an epidemic of ringworm got the attention of politicians. As Water and Wastes Digest reported, their wide-ranging use began in post-World War II era, when septic was embraced by developers racing to erect affordable housing for returning servicemen and later suburbs for the birth of Baby Boomers. Though they were originally conceived as a temporary solution until central sewer networks could be installed, few such transitions materialized and now many of these systems are prone to failure in areas with high water tables, in coastal locales where climate change is raising seas and groundwater levels, and on top of solid rock. Near shorelines, septic leach fields are located in porous, sandy soils affected by a very high, tidally influenced groundwater. This means that we’re going to have to start having better oversight of current septic systems, investing public funds into upgrading existing ones and also looking into alternatives for problematic septic tanks.

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